Although I read a lot of news articles about injury and death on the road, many involving “cyclists” (they’re people who happen to be on bicycles, but the “cyclist” generalisation is pertinent to this article), I very rarely read or even see the comments.
But sometimes, I do read them.
Thus far, I’ve managed to resist ever posting a comment myself.
This post is hopefully the one comment I will ever need to make.
A representative comment
The comments I read today were beneath a story about Tracy Squire, whose son Daniel was killed when struck from behind by a van last month. Tracy is seeking to confront the attitude of some people to “cyclists” and, with depressingly predictable irony, the comments serve to illustrate the root of the issue.
I’m only going to use one as an example. It’s wholly representative both of the comments that regularly appear on these articles and of the attitude that is so deeply problematic:
Whilst this is not aimed at this particular cyclist in any way as I do not know the facts, and nobody deserves what happened, respect has to be earned. That wont happen all the time a large proportion of cyclists simply regard road laws as inapplicable to them. Jumping red lights, up onto the pavement, between lines of traffic switching from one side to the other, not using supplied cycle paths (happens all the time on Watling St/Sovereign Boulevard in Gillingham) No, not all cyclists by any means, and most ‘serious’ cyclists are all to aware of the dangers, but definitely a big enough proportion to give the rest a bad name.
Let’s get one thing, perhaps the purest essence of the problem, very straight right here and now:
Respect does not have to be earned.
You can walk out into the street, see hundreds of people whom you’ve never met before in your life, and you can respect them. You can let them do what they’re doing, wear what they’re wearing, say what they’re saying. It’s perfectly normal and natural and—by and large—everyone does this. It’s basic respect that we all have for each other by default.
Yet, somehow, many people seem to have a philosophical problem with extending this to the idea of driving in such a way as to simply ensure that these people stay alive.
Earned by whom?
I’m going to bet a pile of cash that Daniel Squire was not known by the van driver that hit him; nor by the commenter who—despite his “I’m not a racist, but…” style preamble—diminished his worth.
If they’d never met, how can the driver have determined whether Squire had or had not “earned” sufficient respect for him to be permitted to not be killed that day? (What is the threshold level, anyway? At what point do people earn the right to stay alive and pass out of the “perfectly justified to make their families never see them again” zone?)
If the idea of earning respect is ludicrous, the idea that it should be earned by others on a victim’s behalf is sheer lunacy.
If a teenager was stabbed to death in the street, would people comment to the effect that some other teenagers are rude and noisy, and teenagers need to earn respect?
If a woman was violently raped, would people comment to the effect that some other women are flirty and wear too few clothes, and women need to earn respect?
If a driver was fatally injured in a road rage attack, would people comment to the effect that some other drivers regularly exceed the speed limit, jump red lights, use mobile phones, tailgate, read the newspaper, fail to ensure their tyres are legal, are distracted by satnavs or park illegally, and drivers need to earn respect?
I suspect not, despite regular press releases and news articles (1, 2, 3, 4… there are many more) which make it clear that is actually the overwhelming majority of drivers who do at least one of those things.
Yet the death of a teenager, a woman or a driver who happens to be on a bicycle at the time can be hideously rationalised by some as unimportant, on the basis that some other people jump lights. Not even them—as if even that might justify killing or injuring them—but people who have nothing to do with them.
How hard is it not to kill someone?
When behind the wheel of the car, contrary to what many would believe, people do know deep down what their vehicle can do when things go wrong. Consciously or not, they know it can easily kill: we all have the same basic instinct for the physics of life-threateningly fast and heavy objects and we’ve all been taught as children that you don’t step in front of a car because it can kill you. But, for whatever reason, people blank this out when they get behind the wheel. They don’t make the very easy and simple choice of bringing it to the front of their mind.
All it really takes to make people safe is to decide never to kill someone.
All it takes is to think about how you would feel if you did. To think about how you would feel if someone else killed your son, or your wife, or anyone for whom you cared deeply. All it takes is to think about that whenever you turn the ignition key.
Yes, for reasons I’ve yet to fathom, many people are reluctant to adopt this frame of mind. How hard is it to simply decide that the most important aspect of driving is not to kill? There is a world of difference between not intending to harm others and actively intending not to harm others, and seemingly few people choose the latter.
Respect is a choice
Respect is not earned. Respect can, should, must be unqualified, not least because those who need it may well have absolutely no opportunity to earn it. To respect people is a choice; one which in most aspects of life most people make unquestioningly. Yet not so much on the road.
To use this excuse to diminish the value of lives lost on the road is cheap and morally bankrupt, and is a cover for a baffling reluctance to make just one decision: that putting some basic effort into not killing someone is the most important thing you will do today.
The most basic respect of all is surely to respect someone’s mere existence.
If you feel that such a fundamental level of respect needs to be earned, then you are a deeply dangerous human being.
This case went to court, and a somewhat detailed analysis of the trial can be found here. The comment quoted above could not be more hollow in this context.